Fitzcarraldo in a Bottle 2021

Photo: Andy Orin

Eight years ago I thought of one of the only good ideas I’ve ever had: I should make a ship in a bottle depicting the ship from Fitzcarraldo, Werner Herzog’s 1982 film about a deranged but determined opera lover played by Klaus Kinski.

In attempt to raise money to build an opera house in a small Peruvian city, the titular character tries to gain access to an untapped source of rubber trees by dragging his steam ship across land to another portion of the river. The production was fabulously calamitous — there were multiple plane crashes, Mick Jagger shot a whole part and then dropped out, the thousands of native extras were questionably cared for, a guy sawed off his foot when he was bit by a snake, Kinski was a bigtime freako — but the film is best remembered from the scenes depicting the ship being dragged up a hill. Not a model of a ship or anything like that — they just literally did the thing to film it, portaging a massive 320-ton ship across land, uphill, in the jungle.

It’s one of my favorite movies.

I also love ships in bottles. Not specifically the mystery of their construction, but the complexity and tedium required to create that mystery around an object that is completely useless. They’re little works of sculptural art that also perform a magic trick by existing in an impossible space. That being said, just depicting the Fitzcarraldo scene was more important to me than constructing it with any guise of traditional ship-in-a-bottle trickery. I was particularly inspired by this bottle depicting Jaws. A movie! In a bottle! A movie-ship-in-a-bottle!

In 2013 I drew this on a post-it note:

fitz doodle

I briefly looked for existing model kits of similar ships but didn’t find anything that would work. So I modelled this ship in Autodesk 123D (a free design app which no longer exists):

Six years later in 2019 I printed the model about three inches long using Shapeways:

In “smooth fine detail plastic.” Photo: Andy Orin

There were two factors in deciding that scale: first of all, it needed to fit through the neck of a bottle. And secondly, a smaller print is cheaper (this cost $21.69 and scale increases price exponentially-ish). In 2013 I did toy with the idea of slicing the model so that it would be glued back together inside the bottle, piece by piece, but as I said, performing the traditional construction magic trick wasn’t that important to me.

And I didn’t have a bottle yet anyway. No rush.

This month I happened to have a glass jar from a soy candle that was just about right for this scale. (What’s… the deal... with soy candles? Are normal candles a big problem we need to solve? Are soy candles…. edible?) Jars are obviously less compelling than narrow-necked bottles but it was good for the purpose. A little clay and a bag of miniature trees (insert referral link here) and I had this:

Do you like my improvised light box? Photo: Andy Orin

I’m not over the moon with the outcome but I am over the hill. It looks fine; if you know the movie you know what I’m depicting. I don’t plan on working on it anymore unless I happen across a good model kit that compels me enough to increase the scale of the whole thing.

Why did it take eight years? Did my creative vision persevere through years of setbacks? Did I need time to germinate the idea until a plan bloomed? No! It was a low priority and time was abundant.

There are no lessons about stick-with-it-ness here, pal. This isn’t even a pandemic project; I just have the stupidest long-term goals around.

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